My heart keeps breaking. Way too often, someone I know loses a friend, a family member, a student, or a member of their congregation to gun violence in Chicago. Most of the victims are young adults. When I served Unity Temple, the congregation began sharing in worship the names and ages of all those killed in Chicago. It helped with keeping the human cost of the horrible local epidemic of violence in our thoughts and prayers. Of course thoughts and prayers aren’t enough.
In 2016, gun violence claimed 762 lives in Chicago, more than in Los Angeles and New York combined. Over 80% of the victims were Black men and women. Black church leaders were deeply pained by the growing number of funerals of young people in their communities and were frustrated with the absence of a coordinated strategy by city leaders and their own faith communities. Rev. Ciera Bates-Chamberlain recognized that, in addition to gun violence, Black communities suffer from divestment, over-policing, criminalization of Black bodies, and other forms of structural violence.
In 2017, Rev. Ciera, along with five other African American clergy, launched Live Free Chicago. They mobilized leadership within Black churches and neighborhoods to organize at the intersection of public safety and criminal justice reform. The growing faith-based organizing coalition expanded to include chapters in Peoria, Rockford, Champaign, Lake County, Springfield, and East St. Louis.
“Live Free Illinois” (LFI) became the new name with the vision of an Illinois where Black people are free from all types of violence. LFI builds relationships with congregations across Illinois, with the intention of building statewide power to win policy changes that cannot be won with only a Chicago membership base.
Thanks to the relentless street outreach of organizations like the Nonviolence Institute of Chicago, READI, BUILD, and Chicago CRED, the annual number of Chicago homicides is decreasing. But gun violence is still an epidemic. A well-funded Chicago Office of Gun Violence Prevention is needed to implement comprehensive strategies. The Fund Peace Chicago campaign is a priority for LFI.
It wasn’t initially apparent to me that criminal justice reform is a critical part of a comprehensive non-violence strategy, but I learned this 12 years ago, when I was trained in faith-based organizing, the building blocks of which are 1:1 conversations. I became acquainted with people with radically different backgrounds yet such similar commitments. Through organizing together, legislation was passed to allow people with non-violent felonies on their records to be able to seal them four years after doing their time, thus making employment, housing, and education more accessible. It was inspiring how members of multiple congregations pulled together locally and in Springfield to make that legislation a reality.
Ordinary people have extraordinary impact when we intentionally cultivate relationships to bring about meaningful change.
On May 30, 7 p.m., at Oak Park Temple, Rev. Ciera Bates-Chamberlain will present at the Community of Congregations’ Spring Meeting. Come learn how, together, we can help reduce gun violence.
Rev. Alan Taylor works part-time for Live Free Illinois and has a spiritual direction practice. His website is alanctaylor.com.